The fast-spreading Omicron variant has hit China’s capital Beijing amid emerging COVID-19 clusters across the country, raising pressure on the regime to keep the virus at bay just three weeks before the city is due to stage the Olympic games.
Beijing on Jan. 15 reported its first locally transmitted Omicron case from Haidian—the second-largest district located in the city’s northwest. The officials responded by sealing off 17 “risk areas” associated with the COVID-19 case. All residents from the neighborhood compound where the person lives have temporarily been barred from leaving their homes.
Omicron’s detection in Beijing comes as cities across China have ratcheted up vigilance against the virus ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to start on Feb. 4. The variant is posing a fresh challenge for the regime, whose officials have doubled down on its zero-tolerance approach that had been a nationwide effort to bring the Delta variant under control.
Over 20 million Chinese residents in at least five cities are under lockdown. In Xi’an, harsh virus containment policies have caused locals to struggle for food and the dying have been unable to obtain medical help. Similar lockdown measures in port cities, such as Ningbo, also threaten to disrupt the global supply chain.
Despite the stringent control efforts, over 14 provinces across China have reported Omicron cases as of Saturday, according to He Qinghua, a senior official with China’s National Health Commission’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau. The official didn’t disclose the exact infection numbers, but Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the commission, described the situation as “grim.”
China is “facing the two-fold challenge” from Delta and Omicron, He said at a Saturday press conference, noting that with the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year holiday—which coincides with the Beijing Olympics—the risks of COVID-19 transmission are even higher.
The megacity of Tianjin, just a two-hour drive from Beijing, has also been sealing off residential communities, triggering panic buying among local residents wishing to avoid the same pains as those inflicted on Xi’an resident, where the Dec. 26, 2021, lockdown remains in force.
Omicron cases linked to Tianjin are officially reported to have risen to 400 as of Saturday, spilling into cities as far as Anyang city in central China, and the northeastern city of Dalian.
In December, Beijing implemented travel curbs restricting people from entering the city if the area they are traveling from has one or more local infections in the past two weeks.
Zhuhai, a city in the southeastern Chinese province of Guangdong bordering Macau, has canceled all flights to Beijing and public bus routes after announcing seven cases of Omicron.
Chinese officials also confirmed local Omicron infections in Shanghai on Saturday. The night before, videos shared on social media showed college students fleeing their campuses to avoid being locked inside.
“So scary,” one man said after he and others slipped out from the cordoned school entrance. “I almost didn’t make it.”
To avoid arousing suspicion from the security, he said he decided to only leave with his laptop in a backpack and shipped his clothing before he left.